BWW Review: JACQUES BREL: A LIFE A THOUSAND TIMES, Mirth, Marvel and Maud
When Jacques Brel died in 1978, he wouldn't have figured far up the list when people were asked that old question about three famous Belgians.
Forty years on, his name would crop up soon after Eddy Merckx and Hercule Poirot, such has his influence grown, largely thanks to Scott Walker, Julian Cope, Marc Almond and plenty more. Their championing of Brel has produced a reassessment of the chansonnier's work as radical and literate, rather than kooky and kitsch - he's the hipster's choice for easy listening.
So it's an ideal time to present Brel's life and work in the format of a cabaret - which is pretty much what Simon Pennicott (assisted by Kate-Lois Elliot as Brel's daughter and the show's narrator, France) does in Jacques Brel: A Life a Thousand Times. We get the songs (some in English and some en Français), snippets of the life, much of it spent between Brussels and Paris, and a bit of his philosophy too - rather unreconstructed 60s European male entitlement, but what did you expect?
While it's great to hear classics like "Jacky" and "Le Moribond" (inspiration for the 70s megahit "Seasons in the Sun") and also songs new to me like the beautiful "Madeleine" and "Les Vieux", they're not given full value by Pennicott, whose singing voice lacks the range and richness such melodies require.
Elliot fares better, since her vocals are stronger, but neither performer really fills the space with the charismatic confidence that lies at the heart of Brel's appeal as an entertainer. To be perfectly frank, the show felt a little under-rehearsed and the ramshackle sound system proved more a hindrance than a help.
There's probably a better show to be made about Brel and there's probably a better performance of this show than the one I saw, but there's still much to recommend a trip up to Walthamstow. Brel is a compelling figure with a back catalogue ripe for exploration and this cabaret presentation serves as a handy introduction to, if not a full evocation of, the man and his work.
Jacques Brel: A Life a Thousand Times continues at Mirth, Marvel and Maud until 7 October.